Line breaks are used in a wide range of ways to completely change the rhythm of a poem, carefully avoid rhymes, or even show the poet’s opinion. As a literary device, it is often overlooked.

In the past, I’ll admit, I have been guilty of deliberately avoiding lineation. When I was studying for my master’s degree, I relied quite heavily on a specific poem I wrote. At the time, I loved the idea of it being a mad rush – of racing through a poem of almost 9,000 words without a single pause for breath.

Then, later, I used lineation in one specific point, as a sharp stop to allow me to breath when reading it, and also provide a simple break for the reader.

As part of the course, I trialled lineation throughout the free verse poem. It helped in quite a few ways, in terms of pacing, rhythm, and allowing me to edit the poem down as much as possible.

Poetry Is Not Prose.

If you come from a prose writing background, it is extremely common for you to struggle with lineation (and even avoiding punctuation) as you start to write free verse poetry. It is easy to write in sentences and call them lines of poetry, particularly in free verse where there aren’t any other restrictive rules.

In fact, the lack of rules can often be a real problem for many writers, particularly those who have spent their life learning how to write “correctly” and grammatically.

None of that matters in free verse poetry. Your role is to be true to the poem. Explore whatever you want to explore, with or without grammar and punctuation.

Why Are Line Breaks So Important In Poetry?

When you are writing free verse, knowing how to end a line is crucial. You can write entire essays on why a poet has chosen to use lineation at certain, key points in a poem. Understanding the poetic line break is necessary to a full understanding of the poem in question, whether it’s one you’ve written or one you’re reading.

As a poetic device, the poetic line break is often the most visible, major difference between prose and poetry. It is also worth noting that the poetic line is rarely broken simply due to the end of the page. In almost all poetic lines, from the first line to the second line, to the final word, the line break comes as an active decision, rather than a form of necessity.

The line length of any line in a poem, and its relationship to its neighbours, is an essential part of any poem. As important as any word choice, line breaks, stanza breaks, and the use of enjambment is a core component of modern poetry.

Why Are Line Breaks So Important in Free Verse Poetry?

In structured poetry, or traditional poetic forms, the poetic line length is a slave to the rhythm and rhyme of the poem. The poet would end the line where the rhythm or rhyme scheme would dictate. Iambic pentameter, for example, will dictate that the first line ends after five iambs, as does the second line.

Without careful line breaks, free verse poetry would essentially be a prose poem and nothing else. One solid block of text on the page, with exactly the same line lengths and no added depth caused by longer lines or shorter lines.

Intelligent use, or intelligence rejection, of lineation and line breaks can make a huge difference to free verse poetry. The way lines begin, and end lines are crucial to the whole poem.

Line breaks are fundamental, even independent of a rhyme scheme, as the add greater value to the final word and the first word.

What Is Enjambment in Poetry?

Enjambment is a poetic term for the continuation of a phrase from one line of poetry to the next Enjambed lines are one of the main features of free verse poetry, allowing the poet to control line length and attribute greater meaning – or, at least, draw greater attention, to specific words within the poem, or within the larger utterance itself.

Enjambed lines can be used to great effect in poetry of all kinds, including blank verse, Vers Libre and structured poetic forms. Enjambment can even be used in poems with a rigid rhyme scheme.

What Does Enjambment Mean?

Enjambment literally means “a striding over”. This comes from the French and describes the movement of the same sentence or utterance, “striding over” from one line in a poem to the next line.

What Is The Difference Between A Line Break And Enjambment?

The main difference between enjambment and other forms of line break is the context in which the line is broken. For example, if you finish a phrase or sentence at its natural ending point before starting a new line, that is a traditional line break. Enjambment, however, is where the poet deliberately breaks a sentence across multiple lines before its natural finishing point.

What Does An Enjambed Line Add To A Poem?

An enjambed line can be used in poetry for a wide range of reasons. For example, an enjambed line break can place focus on the final word in a line, or the first word in a next line. Enjambment allows you to create a new line at any point within your poem.

In addition to placing value on specific words, enjambment can also be used to convey a sense of importance, and hint at the actual meaning of a poem.

Enjambment, when used carefully, can add structure to a poem, even when the poem is written in free verse. It can also be used to create a sense of urgency, or to control the pacing of a poem.

What Is The Symbol For A Line Break?

If you’re quoting a poem in an essay or article, and you want to show a line break without actually breaking the line in your work, you can use “/” to indicate line breaks. For example, instead of showing:

“so much depends


a red wheel


you could decide to write it as “so much depends / upon / a red wheel / barrow”. The “/” in these line breaks also covers the stanza break.

How Long Can A Poem Line Be?

If you’re writing in free verse, there isn’t a limitation on how long a line of poetry can be. You can decide to break your poetic line wherever you choose, or wherever you think adds the most value to your poetic work. Long lines and short lines are both commonly found in free verse poetry. Structured poetry often has limitations of the poetic line length, meaning you need to break lines at rigid, predetermined points in your writing.

What Is The Perfect Line Length in Poetry?

When it comes to free verse, there’s no such thing as the perfect line length. Different poems demand different line lengths, with a range of line breaks and a variety of short lines and long lines to add texture and variety to a poem.

However, if you’re writing a short poem, such as the William Carlos Williams poem I mentioned above, you can make each line extremely short. The important thing is to break lines in such a way that it enhances your poem.

Does Lineation Cover Stanza Breaks?

Yes, it can. Lineation covers all line breaks, even when moving from the final line of a stanza to the first line of your next stanza. Whether you’re writing Vers Libre, prose poems, blank verse, or any kind of structured poetry, you should consider lineation and line breaks at all times. Kaveh Akbar’s poem Forfeiting My Mystique is a particularly powerful example of how enjambment is used across stanza breaks.

Examples of Line Breaks in Poetry

You can look at almost any non-prose poem to see line breaks at work. Line breaks are used in poems with both longer lines and shorter lines. Some line break examples which are particularly powerful include:

Howl, By Allen Ginsberg

who poverty and tatters and hollow-eyed and high sat up smoking in the supernatural darkness of cold-water flats floating across the tops of cities contemplating jazz,

who bared their brains to Heaven under the El and saw Mohammedan angels staggering on tenement roofs illuminated,

who passed through universities with radiant cool eyes hallucinating Arkansas and Blake-light tragedy among the scholars of war,

who were expelled from the academies for crazy & publishing obscene odes on the windows of the skull,”

In Howl, a poem with long lines and a rapid-fire pacing, lineation is used to quickly move the poem from one image to the next, while tying them all together as experiences of the poems’ foci. Howl is a poem that you could spend months digging into and remains one of the most popular free verse poems of all time.

Forfeiting My Mystique, by Kaveh Akbar

“It is pretty to be sweet

and full of pardon like

a flower perfuming the

hands that shred it, but

all piety leads to a single

point: the same paradise

where dead lab rats go.”

Kaveh Akbar is one of my favourite contemporary poets. He is incredible at lineation, and I would recommend reading the full poem of Forfeiting My Mystique for a masterclass in line breaks. Line breaks, and stanza enjambment in this poem are used to highlight specific words and fracture the poem’s theme. If you’re ever looking to add anything into your poet’s toolbox, Kaveh Akbar is one of the best contemporary poets to read.

4 Tips On Using Line Breaks In Poetry

While no one can tell you how to use lineation in the best way for you, and your poems, experimenting with different forms of lineation can help you to expand your poetic skillset, and employ a wider range of literary devices in your writing.

If you’re looking to familiarise yourself with using lineation and line breaks in your own poetry, here are a few different techniques you can try. Thanks to intelligent line breaks, you have the possibility to turn even a relatively simple looking sentence into a form of poetry.

1 – Practice Breaking Your Lines In Different Places

Start to write one line of poetry, and let it stretch for a few dozen words, or even a couple of sentences. Once you reach a natural finishing point, employ different line breaks in different places within your writing. Break your lines and employ white space to see how fracturing your writing influences its structure, its meaning and enhances focus around specific terms.

2 – Use Enjambment Line Breaks

If you don’t traditionally use enjambment, don’t be afraid to try it. Breaking a line in the middle of a sentence or utterance, or even in the middle of individual words, can be a fantastic way of freeing yourself up to write how you want. Enjambment can be a defining characteristic of a poet’s work and can be incredibly powerful. Employing enjambment can also allow you to explore a poem in greater depth and, potentially, highlight additional meanings beyond the main theme.

3 – Don’t Use Line Breaks At All

Don’t be afraid to ignore line breaks. Write without line breaks to see how your writing naturally paces itself, and whether you’re able to pace your writing just through word choice, line structure and composition. The one major difference between Vers Libre and other poetic forms is the lack of rules and structure in free verse. If you’re able to structure a poem in your own way, in a single line and without line breaks, then if you do decide to break lines, you can review how it changes the structure and rhythm within the poem.

4 – Convert A Poem Into Prose

Converting a poem into prose can be a great way of exploring both the language and the lineation of any literature example. Sylvia Plath’s poems, for example, are extremely rewarding when you strip away single lines and, instead, convert them into block paragraphs. Removing white space, line breaks and removing the “end of a line” boost to specific words, can be a great way of reviewing the actual literary content of a poem. It may not be how the poet decided to share their work, but when you’re looking to understand the meaning of a poem or a particular sentence within a poem, removing lineation can be incredibly powerful.

Lineation, Line Breaks & Contemporary Poetry

Line breaks are an extremely powerful technique in the poet’s toolbox. Breaking a line can highlight specific words, draw your reader’s eye to the next line, or even make other lines, which aren’t as powerful as others, less likely to capture the reader’s attention.

As a form of pagination, line breaks are an essential tool, and one that any poet working with free verse needs to understand. Whether you’re writing poetry or reviewing it, line breaks, enjambment and other structural techniques are as important as word choice and thematic structure.

J.W. Carey
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